Friday, October 09, 2009

Armen Eloyan, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Reviewed by Charles Darwent

As self-portraits go, Armen Eloyan's Untitled (Painter) is a bit of an oddity, surpassed in the weirdness stakes only by Untitled (Painter II).

In the first, the 40-something Armenian depicts himself as a log, sporting natty red shoes and propped up against a wall fast asleep, palette and brushes on the floor beside him. In the second, the alter-log is at work on a canvas, but looks surprised to find that a wedge has been hacked from the back of his head. If Armen is trying to tell us something about life as an artist, his take on the subject does not seem entirely upbeat.

Cartoons have a venerable history in contemporary art – think Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons – but Armen's cast of characters feels different from these. Lichtenstein and the rest were playing high-art-low-art games with their "whams!" and their Mickey Mice. Armen, by contrast, is inventing rather than appropriating, and although his biggest influence is clearly Philip Guston, his logs and potatoes and tomatoes and books smack oddly of Chagall: bit-players from a Mitteleuropa folklore, down-market versions of wolves and pigs and little girls in red capes.

If Armen's characters have one thing in common, it is their air of jaunty cruelty. His Untitled (Potato) wears the stock cartoon-zany expression of crossed eyes and lolling tongue, but has hacked off one of his Mr Potato Head arms with a carving knife and taken a slice, à la Van Gogh, out of his own tuberous bonce. The titular hero of Untitled (Tomato as a Cook) is as cheerily self-destructive as he sounds. Self-abuse of one kind or another is a recurrent theme in Armen's painted fairy tales. Several characters appear to be masturbating, most insistently the case of the log in Untitled (Pink Pinocchio) who is touching a strategically placed twig in what can only be described as an inappropriate manner. Another log, in watercolour this time, has a stick up what would, in other circumstances, be his arse.

And what is this all about? Well, black humour isn't the only thing that Armen's pictures share. The other is the quality of their painting. The palette and brushes in Untitled (Painter) are in deep impasto, standing proud of the canvas so as to be both representations of themselves and demonstrations of what they can do. Like Armen's self-cooking tomatoes and self-slicing potatoes, they elide cause and effect, the maker and the made. In their throwaway way, they are deeply clever and accomplished and they want you to know it. To put it another way, Armen's pictures are Absurd with a capital "A", squandering their talents on what looks like childish nonsense but slyly underlining those talents in the process.

In this, the new work has the feel of a manifesto. His last show here, just over a year ago, was both more painterly and less so. Then, his cartoons felt like German New Painting, expressionistic, harder to read. Now, the potatoes and tomatoes are both simpler and more virtuosic, exasperated but in a good way. What artist hasn't occasionally felt that he was killing himself with work to no end?

At times like this, you go back to the beginning, which is what I'd guess Armen is doing. Personally, I'm intrigued to see where he goes next.


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